The environmental consequences of regional nuclear warfare

As the spotlight heats up on the threat of nuclear warfare, the environmental impact of even a regional attack has been ignored.
Photo by Nicolas Raymond
Nuclear Grunge Symbol copyright: Nicolas Raymond/3.0/Creative Commons

In May, the 2018 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) was held in Geneva. The NPT came into existence in 1970 to help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and further the global nuclear disarmament agenda. Every five years, countries that are part of the NPT (188 UN member states), meet to review its implementation.

Before this, PrepCom meetings are held, known for their incremental progress. Yet one topic is noticeably left out of the conversation – the global environmental impact of using nuclear weapons.

Even just a regional series of nuclear attacks could cause such a severe drop in global temperatures that it could bring on a nuclear winter and affect the entire Earth’s stratosphere.

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Nuclear winter

A 2014 study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research found that 100 small nuclear detonations, enough for just a regional war, would produce five teragrams (5,000,000,000 kg) of black carbon that would then rise up into Earth’s stratosphere. This soot would quickly engulf the Earth and form a thick stratospheric carbon layer, preventing up to 70% of sunlight from reaching the surface of the Northern Hemisphere and 35% of sunlight in the Southern Hemisphere.

A drop in global temperatures would follow in a matter of weeks due to the loss of sunlight, with average global surface temperatures becoming colder than they were at the height of the last Ice Age. The effect could last longer than 25 years. This would eliminate many food growing seasons, leading to an increased risk of global famine.

Which countries have nuclear weapons?

The United States was the first country to develop nuclear weapons, the only country to have used them in war, and the country with the greatest nuclear weapons budget. Russia has the largest arsenal in the world. The United Kingdom has four nuclear-armed submarines in Scotland, each with 16 Trident missiles.

In France, there is always at least one submarine active and equipped with M45 and M51 missiles. China has been slowly increasing the size of its arsenal over the years and India has developed nuclear weapons contrary to its non-proliferation commitments. Pakistan has been substantially improving its nuclear arsenal recently too. Israel will neither confirm nor deny the existence of its nuclear arsenal and North Korea has fewer than 10 warheads. In contrast, South Africa is the only country to have voluntarily given up its nuclear weapons.

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But how likely is a regional nuclear war?

Henry Reich from MinutePhysics and Max Tegmark, one of the founders of the Future of Life Institute have stressed that a nuclear assault is more likely than one would imagine in their 2016 collaboration video ‘Why You Should Care About Nukes’.

“The most likely way for nuclear war to start isn’t political, it’s accidental,” said Tegmark.

“For example, the time faulty computer chips in US alarm systems erroneously signaled incoming Soviet missiles and the US started to prepare for full-blown retaliation. Or the time that Russian satellites mistook an unusual glint of sunlight off of clouds for incoming American missiles and an officer averted retaliation just by ignoring the alarm on gut instinct. Or the time after the Cold War ended when Russian radar systems thought a Norwegian scientific rocket was an American nuclear missile and almost launched their missiles in retaliation. These close-calls keep happening, and sooner or later our luck is going to run out”.

With U.S. President Donald Trump announcing that he wants the U.S. to be “unpredictable” with nuclear weapons, this kind of rhetoric creates the right geopolitical conditions for a near-miss or actual detonation to occur by accident.  

Are citizens being kept in the dark?

The environmental consequences of nuclear war rarely make it into the media and is lacking within the global public discussion on nuclear weapons. Rather, the issue of nuclear weapons being used for terrorism, and the danger of one nuclear weapon being detonated, receives much of the global attention. The global public are told that this is the greatest threat that we face, if one country attacks another with a nuclear weapon, with no mention of how a regional attack could lead to global consequences.

It is possible that, in keeping citizens in the dark about the global risks that a series of regional nuclear assaults brings, certain world leaders may be looking to diminish public support for the banning of nuclear weapons, especially in nuclear weapon holding states.

Citizens in countries without nuclear weapons may not have considered the issue to be much of a concern to them, without knowing the possible global consequences of regional detonations.

What can concerned citizens do?

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its work in nuclear disarmament and anyone around the world can join the campaign. There are also regional campaigning groups, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the UK.

You can also divest money away from companies that produce nuclear weapons. What we need to remember is, citizens do not choose to have nuclear weapons, governments do. It’s time that citizens had their voices heard in the nuclear weapons debate and were told the complete truth about the technology being used and the consequences we could face.


Featured photo: Nicolas Raymond



Isobel Edwards

Isobel has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and a master’s degree in Emerging Economies and Inclusive Development with a focus on gender from King’s College London. She has worked in various areas of international development including cooperation and development for the EU in China, peacebuilding and statebuilding for the OECD and in environmental affairs for the UN, both in Paris. She now works in Geneva mainly on UN affairs relating to peacebuilding and the prevention of violent conflict, the human impacts of climate change and food and sustainability.
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